For John S. “Pat” Neild Jr., deep roots are in his blood and his soil. A lifelong Taylors Islander, the chairman of the board of Grace Foundation, which caretakes the area’s history and its church cemeteries, he’s been growing grapes and making wine at Ridgeton Vineyard since 1973, adjacent to historic Ridgeton Hall.
But the ties binding his family to the land the vineyard sits on go back considerably farther.
“Originally owned by an ancestor, it is one of the oldest family properties on the island. The Keene, Travers, and Spicer families owned most of Taylors Island in the past, and my family claims most of them as ancestors,” he recalled. The properties making up Ridgeton’s current estate consists of about 850 acres, according to Neild.
In 2000 Neild undertook his own research of recorded deeds and related information, finding sources suggesting settlement as early as 1669, through the revolutionary period, spanning the 19th century, clear through to the 20th.
The celebrated home still standing there and listed on the National Historic Register, came a bit later.
“Ridgeton was the home farm and residence of Judge Levi Dove Travers, Jr., born Nov. 21, 1828, died May 26, 1907. The large section of the Ridgeton house was built in 1859, but the smaller sections are older,” Neild wrote.
Documents accompanying the home’s nomination for the National Historic Register describe it as “one of the best-preserved Italianate style dwellings on the Eastern Shore,” built with timber from the surrounding farm along with materials shipped down the Chesapeake from Baltimore.
Neild himself grew up on the north end of Taylors Island, on Hooper’s Neck Road, until joining the Air Force in 1951, never having lived at Ridgeton himself.
“That property was out of our family from about 1918, until my father bought it back in 1956. My parents, J. Stapleforte and Mable, lived there until they passed away. In 1999, my wife Ann and I inherited the Ridgeton house with 23 acres of land, replacing the roof, adding HVAC, and doing as much maintenance as required by the age of the house,” Neild added. But they did all they could to preserve its unique features, including the large kitchen fireplace and the rooftop “Widows Walk’, featuring a panoramic aerial view of much of central Taylors Island as well as the Chesapeake Bay.
During his parents’ later years, Neild took over the land’s farming responsibilities, improving equipment and outbuildings. He also began to help his mother, a DAR member, gather and organize notes she’d compiled about the family’s history. His dad had helped create the Dorchester County Historical Society Neild Museum dedicated to preserving Dorchester County’s agricultural history which opened in 1981. (Neild himself served as president of the Historical Society and South Dorchester Folk Museum. He has also presided over numerous other land and sea organizations, including the Tidewater Farm Club, the Rotary Squadron of the Chesapeake Bay and the Cambridge Yacht Club).
Most of the remaining farmland was titled to the corporation Neild formed, Ridgeton Farms, Inc., jointly owned by the couple’s three sons. Since 2014, son Tom, president and majority owner of the corporation, has resided at Ridgeton Hall with wife Lisa.
Neild’s interest in growing grapes and making wine was sparked when Baltimore’s Boordy winery owner Philip Wagner, retired Sunpapers editor, spoke at the Tidewater Farm Club in the early 1970s. With an ag degree from the University of Maryland, Neild became intrigued. Accompanied by long-time friend Ron Wade, the enterprise got underway, starting out with a few cuttings “begged and borrowed” from Western Shore growers, including Boordy, Neild recalled.
After the initial year Wade moved on but Neild kept Ridgeton Vineyard going. Since then, he’s continued to enjoy the process of planting, growing, crushing, fermenting, and then sharing, maintaining steadfast notes detailing each season’s progress.
The not-for-profit enterprise, the fruits of which he has enjoyed sharing with family and friends, has also offered local wine lovers an opportunity to pick an array of grapes he’s experimented with growing, from fig to muscadine, even aronia berry. Over the years, he’s winnowed out varieties which didn’t perform as well in the local soil. Salt-water erosion has also contributed to the loss of about half of the original two-acre vineyard. (Photos posted on the Taylors Island Facebook Page following Friday’s King Tide and storm showed the vineyard area covered with water).
At 91, Neild recently considered winding down the operation, especially after several pick your own regulars stopped drinking wine. But he’s still enjoying the adventure, and nearby Layton’s Chance winery is remains a steady customer.
“We usually buy Chambourcin and Vidal, and this year got about two tons of these and Norton grapes, one of my favorites,” commented winemaker William Layton. “Usually, his grapes go into our Farm Red, our dry red blend. We’re proud to be able to buy truly local grapes grown right here in Dorchester County,” Layton added.
Son Tom, until recently too busy with his full-time occupation, has recently begun to try his hand at the winemaking process, finding it to his liking. And in years to come, Neild’s numerous grandchildren and great grandchildren may discover its joys, as well, he noted.
For more information call 410-228-6175 or email [email protected].
Debra Messick is a retired Dorchester County Public Library associate and lifelong freelance writer. A transplanted native Philadelphian, she has enjoyed residing in Cambridge MD since 1995.